Utility regulator takes solar tour in Germany

State utility regulator Bubba McDonald spent last week in Germany with the co-founders of a private solar company whose ambitions he has championed.

McDonald said he paid for the overseas trip with Georgia Solar Utilities, which is trying to corner the solar generation market in Georgia.

“I had the opportunity to participate, I wanted to pay my way,” McDonald told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noting that the Public Service Commission does not regulate solar companies.

McDonald declined to provide documents showing he covered his own expenses, saying: “Whose business is it anyway?”

The PSC does not regulate solar energy in Georgia, but the panel does have a say in the issue. The commission oversees the state’s largest utility monopoly, Georgia Power, and must sign off on where the company gets its electricity, which includes renewable fuels such as solar. The PSC recently OKed Georgia Power’s proposal to buy 210 megawatts of solar and add it to the grid over several years.

In August, Georgia Solar Utilities asked the PSC for permission to operate as a solar monopoly so it could compete against Georgia Power and sell sun power directly to consumers. The request led to several heated debates at the PSC before regulators ruled in November that that decision was up to the state Legislature.

Georgia lawmakers are under pressure from environmental, consumer and renewable energy groups to change the law to create more solar opportunities in the state.

McDonald, a former state lawmaker elected to the PSC in 2008, has called for the expansion of solar. He backed Georgia Solar Utilities’ request when its chief executive appeared before the PSC and introduced a resolution conveying to legislators the commission’s support for the company’s monopoly bid. The commission amended that to a general endorsement of solar producers before passing it 3-2.

Although McDonald spent time with Georgia Solar executives in Germany, neither the company nor its executives had registered as lobbyists with the state ethics commission. State law says anyone who spends either $1,000 or 10 percent of their business time lobbying in a year is required to register as lobbyists.

It’s a vague definition some find worrisome.

“If you’re taking an elected official around and you’re talking to them about something that’s going to benefit your company, you’re a lobbyist,” said Rick Thompson, founder of R. Thompson & Associates, an ethics and governmental compliance consulting firm. Thompson also is the former executive director of the state ethics commission.

Georgia Solar Utilities co-founder Shane Owl-Greason said he invited McDonald to join the company in Germany after learning the commissioner was planning a vacation. They toured RWE, Germany’s largest utility, and met with energy industry officials. Germany is known as a leader on the solar front.

“There was no monies offered to the commissioner,” Owl-Greason told the AJC in an interview. “He was going to pay for it out of his own pocket. The plane ticket, the hotels everything. He wrote a check to cover the expenses.”

When asked to whom McDonald wrote the check, Owl-Greason replied, “I don’t know how the accounting went. Whatever the expenses were, he paid for all of it.”

McDonald declined to show receipts or give proof of expenses when pressed for details, saying his word should stand for itself.

Because the debate is about solar, one political scientist said McDonald is free from scrutiny.

“The PSC does not regulate solar,” said Steve Anthony, a lecturer with Georgia State University’s political science department who said he knows McDonald personally. “It may sound like it’s splitting hairs, but he has no say-so over their future.”

McDonald and another PSC commissioner, Doug Everett, appeared next to Georgia Solar Utilities’ officials at a news conference held at the Capitol in September. In November, McDonald wrote the resolution endorsing the company’s desire to obtain a monopoly.

“I believe this is in the best interest of Georgians,” McDonald said at the time of the hearing.

Commissioner Stan Wise, who voted against the resolution, said in a dissent that it is “irresponsible” of the PSC to adopt the legislative agenda of a private company that the agency does not regulate.